Blackhawks

Wheeling goes from 1-14 to Elite 8

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Wheeling goes from 1-14 to Elite 8

Who woulda thunk it?

Wheeling's girls basketball team was 1-14 and seeded 14th in a 19-team regional. Season over, right? Wrong. Coach Julissa Hernandez' Wildcats have advanced to Monday's Class 4A supersectional round and have become the first team in state history to qualify for the Elite Eight with a losing record.

In fact, the Wildcats need three victories to finish 18-18--and win the state championship.

Who woulda thunk it?

"Everybody asks how we turned it around but we didn't change anything," Hernandez said. "We've been doing the same things from day one. I just think the girls got tired of losing. They said to themselves: 'We can be in control.' We weren't in control in the first part of the season.

"The biggest difference from the first half was we had to get past turnovers. We had to realize that we would make mistakes on defense. But don't harp on it. As coaches and players, we didn't dwell on mistakes. We looked at positives. Now they are having fun. It is hard to have fun when you are losing. But there is nothing but smiles on their faces now."

As the 14th seed, Wheeling had to play into the regional. After losing their last regular-season game to Palatine 36-23, the Wildcats have gone on a tear, eliminating Round Lake 50-14, Libertyville 56-51, Prospect 58-32, Warren 41-26 and Zion-Benton 50-45 in Thursday's sectional final. They will carry a 15-18 record into Monday's supersectional against Loyola (25-7) at Stevenson.

"Honestly, I'm not surprised," Hernandez said. "We played well in the summer. It gave us some confidence. Our goals were to win conference, regional and sectional. We fell short in conference (third). But those were our goals in the preseason. We felt they were possible. We always knew it doesn't matter how we started, just how we finished.

"These kids didn't quit. When we were 1-14, they stuck with it. It was rough, not easy. But everybody still came to practice ready to work hard. We lost two games in overtime and 10 by 10 points or less. We felt we were better than our record."

They experienced losing last year, too. In Hernandez' first season, Wheeling was 4-26. "We fell short in a lot of games but it wasn't frustrating or disappointing. It was just a learning experience for all of us, coaches and girls," Hernandez said.

Now they are putting it all together. The senior leaders are Kellie Kuzmanic (12 ppg) and Leah Malsom (8.2 ppg). The other starters are Kellie's sister, freshman point guard Deanna Kuzmanic (10 ppg, 4 assists), junior Jessi Zuba (4 ppg) and freshman Hailey Dammeier (4.5 ppg). Freshman Hannah Dobrowski (3.5 ppg) comes off the bench.

Kellie Kuzmanic had 14 points and 13 rebounds in Thursday's victory over Zion-Benton. Deanna Kuzmanic scored 20 points and Malsom had seven points and four rebounds. Afterward, Zion-Benton coach Tanya Johnson, who produced state championship teams at Loyola Academy in 1997 and 1998, described Wheeling as a team of destiny.

Winning may be new to some of these girls but it isn't new to Hernandez or the Wheeling program. A graduate of Lake Park in 2003, Hernandez played on a team that lost to Candace Parker and Naperville Central in the supersectional. After graduating from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Hernandez joined Wheeling coach Shelly Weigel's staff.

From 2003 to 2010, Weigel was one of the most successful coaches in the state. After starting 11-16, she lost only 28 games in the next six years and won 25, 28, 23, 28, 33 and 26 games. Her 2009 team finished third in the state tournament. She won 80 percent (174-44) of her games in seven years.

While Weigel was more offense-minded, the 26-year-old Hernandez emphasizes defense. But one drill she picked up from her mentor, called the seven passes drill, proved to be a difference-maker in last Thursday's victory. Desperately trying to protect a slim lead in the last two minutes, Hernandez called for the strategy when Zion-Benton switched to a 1-2-1-1 trapping half-court defense.

"You have to pass the ball seven times before you try to score," Hernandez said. "You pass to a teammate and she must pass to another teammate. You can't pass it back to the person who threw the ball to you. And you are allowed only one dribble.

"We needed to keep the ball in our possession. We needed to find other people to pass, to avoid double-teamming. It involves a lot of teamwork and communication to make it work. Our girls stayed calm and handled the pressure and got open for passes."

So Wheeling is on its way to the Elite Eight. "Our fans have been with us all year. The parents didn't give up. It's nice to see the great support we have at Wheeling," Hernandez said.

Now everybody has smiles on their faces.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.